But as hard as we try, it’s impossible to separate the player and the man. He lived like he played: fearless and at full speed, never satisfied, drawn to the bright lights.
He made headlines for both victories and vices, creating a tangled portrait that many soccer fans found difficult to reconcile. He was magnificent and messy.
Maradona’s career mirrored his life: loud and spectacular.
Perhaps no image captured his conflicting essence like the one at the 1994 World Cup. After scoring a wonderful goal against Greece in Foxborough, Mass., he raced toward the sideline TV camera, arms pulled back, chest thrust forward, mouth open, eyes wide and bulging as if he were possessed by the devil.
In a way, he was. Days later, Maradona was booted from the tournament for failing a drug test. He would never score for Argentina again.
Global TV audiences last saw his contemptuousness during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Attending as a fan, he leaned over a railing during Argentine celebrations, howling to the moon and directing both middle fingers at fans below.
Such behavior by anyone else would have drawn universal scorn. Coming from Maradona, it was almost expected. Unrestrained and pugnacious — it’s who he was.
His brilliant and devilish sides often surfaced in the course of a 90-minute match, no more so than in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England.
There was the goal he scored by slaloming and accelerating past five players, starting inside the Argentine half, a sequence considered the greatest individual act in tournament history.
And there also was the “Hand of God,” a sneaky punch of the ball into the net, undetected by the referee or linesman. Had such audacity taken place in this age of video review, it would have been laughed off and forgotten. Instead, it stands in infamy — a historic and dastardly moment that could belong only to Maradona.
As jarring as Wednesday’s news was, it was not a surprise. He had done a lot of hard living and battled health problems for years. This month, he underwent surgery for a blood clot in his brain.
Maradona was a force throughout his life. He emerged from poverty, was a childhood sensation and made his pro debut 10 days short of his 16th birthday.
Stardom in Argentina led to contracts with FC Barcelona and Napoli, where he lifted the spirits of a downtrodden city and guided the team to its first Serie A championship. It’s also where his troubles accelerated, through cocaine use and heavy partying.
After retiring in 1997, Maradona entered the coaching ranks, overseeing Argentina’s 2010 World Cup efforts before moving to outposts in the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.
Other retired players have gone into coaching, but few have eclipsed their team and players like Maradona. Everywhere he went, he was the star. Documentarians followed. Maradona was ever-present, in good ways and bad.
For the past 15 years, Argentine soccer has revolved around Lionel Messi, the Barcelona superstar who, compared with Maradona, is a monk. In life and now death, Maradona’s shadow looms over Messi.
Maradona won a World Cup and finished second in another; Messi got to the 2014 final but lost. Imagine being Messi, the greatest player of your generation, among the best ever to grace the sport, yet still not convincingly the finest from your country.
Soccer binds the world like few other things, a common language that transcends political differences and fosters healthy debate. From Beijing to Johannesburg and New York to Paris, Maradona’s death will rekindle arguments about soccer’s greatest.
Many will say Pelé, who won three World Cups with Brazil. Others will nominate Messi or his contemporary, Cristiano Ronaldo. Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer will receive votes.
But Maradona’s combination of wonders is persuasive, even as his human flaws tugged at his legacy.
As Messi once said: “Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. He’s the greatest there’s ever been.”
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